The recent comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright have not only complicated the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama, who for more than 20 years has been a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ that Wright once pastored. Some of Wright's remarks—particularly his claim that criticism of his more provocative sermons "is not an on attack on Jeremiah Wright" but instead "an attack on the black church"—have also sparked wide a debate on whether Wright typifies the beliefs of millions of African-American churchgoers and their ministers. U. S. News approached two leading experts on the African-American church figures with a single question: "How well does Rev. Jeremiah Wright represent the black church in America?" Here are their answers:
Dwight Hopkins is a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the author of Heart and Head: Black Theology Past, Present, and Future and many other books.
"I think his theology and his religious perspective are both very representative, especially linking the personal salvation with social justice critique. In fact, those two focii have been the hallmark of the black church in America since the black church was founded in the period of slavery. But unfortunately what has happened, particularly in the past seven and a half years, is that President Bush has promoted a small group of black clergy to represent all of black Christianity. He's promoted a theological trend called "prosperity gospel" which is basically that individuals should use Jesus Christ plus capitalism to get personally rich.
But the contribution the black church made during the period of slavery in this country was linking personal salvation with social critique of public policy—the government's public policy on slavery. Of course people have questions about the form of Wright's presentation but the substance and tradition that he practices both link back with the church that they were founded on."
Thabiti Anyabwile, a native of Lexington, N.C., is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman and the author of The Decline of African American Theology.
"On one hand, he doesn't represent the mass of the African American church well at all. The mass of that church is largely mainstream in its politics, in its social concerns, and in its practice of church life. So in one sense Rev. Wright lies at the margins of the politically radical branch of the African American church.
In another sense, though, Rev. Wright, and the kind of comments that he made, do represent what I think is a large-scale decline of biblical-centeredness, God-centeredness, gospel-centeredness inside the African American church in particular and in the American church in general. So in that sense, he is the poster boy of the decline of bibical theology in the African American context."